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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Enthusiast

You go first.

Dear Word Detective: In some recent reading of several different 19th century authors, I’m finding that the term “enthusiast” appears to mean something different in these texts than in our current usage. Several times, it’s applied in description of an individual in a tone that is scathing, contemptuous, and downright nasty. Or, it’s used by a character trying to establish his bona fides by claiming “I’m not an enthusiast by any means,” for example. Can you shed any light on this difference? How did a term that today generally conveys cheerful energy and motivation evolve from one that seems to imply a moral or intellectual weakness? — Chris, Kansas City.

Well, now here’s an appropriate question for me to answer. I just happen to be known as “Mister Enthusiasm” among my friends and family, because I’m always up for tackling a task, embarking on a spontaneous adventure, or just spinning the Great Roulette Wheel of Life first thing every morning. Just kidding. My enthusiasm quotient has been at low ebb since I was twelve, when I discovered Mister Ed couldn’t really talk. A world devoid of talking animals cannot dazzle me with its tawdry pageant, so I take the Homer Simpson approach to life: “Why go out? We’ll just end up back here.”

It would seem that you have a sharp eye (or ear) for overtones. “Enthusiast” and its parent “enthusiasm” have indeed markedly changed their connotations since “enthusiasm” first appeared in English in the early 17th century. The root of “enthusiasm” was the Greek “entheos,” which meant literally “possessed by a god.” (That “theos” is also found in “theology” and related English words.) This produced the Greek words “enthousiasmos” (“divine inspiration”) and “enthousiazein” (“to be inspired or possessed by religious fervor”). “Enthusiast,” “enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic” all arrived in English with these religious overtones.

In the Puritan England of the day, however, high-octane religious fervor was frowned upon, and “enthusiast” took on a definite connotation of disapproval (“One who erroneously believes himself to be the recipient of special divine communications; in wider sense, one who holds extravagant and visionary religious opinions, or is characterized by ill-regulated fervor of religious emotion,” Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) and it was applied to people we would probably call “zealots” or “fanatics” today. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, noted that “It is the believing those to be Miracles which are not, that constitutes an Enthusiast” (1746).

By the mid-18th century, however, the religious sense was fading, and “enthusiast” was being used in a more neutral secular sense to mean someone who was full of “enthusiasm” for a cause, a person, a principle, etc., “enthusiasm” itself having come to mean “passionate eagerness or interest” in something, usually based in a strong belief in its merits (“Bob’s enthusiasm for saving money with DIY roof repairs overcame his fear of heights, but not his balance problems”). This “big fan of” or “eager to get started” sense of “enthusiast” is the positive sense we use today. The OED does note, however, that when any of this family of words are used in a disparaging or sarcastic sense, it’s almost always “enthusiast” (“Since it was a weekend, Bob discovered that the ER was already full of DIY enthusiasts”).

Speaking of the “enthusiast” family, the “troubled teen” of the lot is definitely the verb “to enthuse,” which means either “to make enthusiastic” or “to become enthusiastic.” Labeled “an ignorant back-formation of enthusiasm” by the OED, “enthuse” appeared in the early 19th century and didn’t raise any hackles among usage mavens until 1870. Since then it has been regularly denounced, but also regularly used by such notable writers as Robert Frost, Wilfred Owen, and Julian Huxley, as well as many others who found it useful.

Knock for a loop / knock someone’s socks off

Up in the air, Junior Birdmen.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” originate and what exactly does it mean? — Angie.

Dear Word Detective: I just used “threw me for a loop” in an intertubes comment, then wondered if it was “through me for a loop” or something else. The internet says I wrote it correctly, but took a pass on where it’s from (my search was brief). You and your readers have used the phrase, but you don’t seem to have addressed its origins. Where does (or might) the phrase come from? — TB.

Hey kids, it’s twofer! That’s right, two questions answered (we hope) in one column. And that’s just the beginning. In the coming months, we’ll be adding more and more questions to every column, until they’re stacked up like incoming flights over LaGuardia. We’re just doing our part to fight the depress…. I mean recession, by conserving pixels or something. In fact, today only, we’ll even throw in the origin of “twofer,” which originally, back in the 1890s, meant two cheap cigars sold for the price of one decent one (“two for one”).

“Socks” are, of course, short stockings covering the foot and reaching usually to the ankle, though knee-socks (which really just cover the calf) are also popular. It sounds like a lame joke, but the root of “sock” is simply the Latin “soccus,” which meant a kind of low, soft slipper (which is what “sock” meant when it first appeared in print in Old English). Our modern sense of “sock” as a stocking usually worn under shoes arose in the 14th century.

The phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” first appeared in the mid-19th century with the meaning “to beat thoroughly; to vanquish,” especially in a fistfight, implying violence so extreme that the loser would not only have his shoes knocked off, but his socks as well. The phrase was soon adapted to mean simply “decisively defeat” in non-violent contexts, such as an election, and today it is also used in the more positive sense of “to amaze, delight or strongly impress” (“Bob’s harmonica rendition of the Goldberg Variations really knocked the judges’ socks off”).

To be “thrown for a loop” or “knocked for a loop” refers to being bewildered, dazzled, disoriented and shocked by some event (“AT&T and T-Mobile were thrown for a loop last week when the Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s planned acquisition of T-Mobile,” CNET, 9/5/11). The phrase first appeared in print in the 1920s, and comes from what the Oxford English Dictionary terms “a centrifugal railway,” but which is, no doubt, better known as a “roller coaster.” The “loop” on roller coaster runs is the point where the coaster arcs upward through a complete circle, leaving passengers upside down at its apex. The term was initially used in the literal roller coaster sense and then to describe aerobatic maneuvers by pilots “looping the loop,” and finally in boxing to mean a powerful punch that downed an opponent, before acquiring its modern “OMG!” usage.

By way of an interesting footnote to “knocked for a loop,” many people have pointed out that the similar phrase “head over heels,” meaning to be figuratively turned upside down by something (usually love) actually makes no sense. Most of us, after all, spend all day with our heads above (“over”) our heels. In fact, the phrase, when it first appeared in the mid-14th century, took the far more logical form “heels over head,” and it was only an inept author’s reversal of it to “head over heels” in 1771 that gave us the modern form. It also didn’t help that Davy Crockett (of coonskin cap fame) used the mangled “head over heels” form (“I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl”) in his 1834 autobiography.

Six-ounce gloves

Watch out for Grandma’s left hook.

Dear Word Detective: My grandmother, likely born in the late 1800′s or early 1900′s, used to say, “Well, pardon my six ounce gloves.” She was a cultured Bostonian. I can make some assumptions about what that means (not lady-like dress gloves as a wardrobe faux pas). But do you know exactly what it means, where it derives from, or even anywhere the expression has been used? — Tim Jackson.

Ding ding ding! We have a winner! Congratulations, you’ve won the Weirdest Question of the Month Award. Your prize, an adorable free cat, is being dispatched to your door at this very moment; please listen for a scratching noise.

I’m going to hazard a guess that you have already searched online and discovered, as I have, that there is a rock band (they describe their genre as “Metal/Hard Rock/Power Groove”) named “Six Ounce Gloves” in Fresno, California. I think we can assume that your grandmother was not a fan. But it does indicate that the phrase “six ounce gloves” was not simply her idiosyncratic invention.

I have been unable to find an instance of the phrase “pardon my six ounce gloves” in any reference work or online archive, but if your grandmother used it routinely, it may have been a catch phrase current in the early 20th century, perhaps one only briefly popular (e.g., “No way!” “Way!”). It’s also possible, of course, that your grandmother simply invented it herself on the spur of the moment and then continued to use it.

So far, I realize, all of this is quite vague, but now the story gets very specific in a very weird way. I’m fairly certain that the “six ounce gloves” to which your grandmother referred were not sub-par dress gloves. They were boxing gloves. Boxing gloves, it turns out, come in different weights. Most boxing matches today are fought with gloves weighing between 10 and 14 ounces, although “bantamweight” fights and youth boxing matches often use lighter-weight gloves as light as six ounces. The weight of a glove is proportional to its padding, so boxing with heavier gloves, where the force of a blow is dispersed over a larger area, is usually considered safer than with lighter gloves, which deliver a more focused, sharper blow. (I suspect that the band picked “Six Ounce Gloves” as a name because of its somewhat menacing connotations of “nearly bare knuckle” fighting.)

Assuming that your grandmother was not a boxing fan, the question is, of course, why she would be using a boxing metaphor. The answer may be that during the early years of the 20th century there was apparently a fad of fashionable young women taking up recreational boxing. An article from the New York Times of September 25, 1904 was titled “And now it’s the boxing girl: Six ounce gloves the thing, and she knows all about feints, clinches and side-stepping; Woman’s latest fad and its advantages.” What follows is a “how-to” guide for young women “tired of golf and handball and basketball and tennis” who want to go a few rounds in the ring to lose weight and stay in shape. Early on, the author addresses the question of gloves: “The boxing girl uses a six-ounce glove. It is heavy enough to keep her from hurting anybody, and not so heavy as to tire out her arms before she begins.”

As a young, female and cultured Bostonian of the day, it seems pretty likely that your grandmother was at least aware of this boxing fad, and even just reading such press accounts would probably have acquainted her with the “six-ounce gloves” used in the sport. I think that in using “Pardon my six ounce gloves” as a catchphrase, your grandmother probably meant “Pardon my bluntness” while delivering a possibly impolitic statement or perhaps “Pardon my rudeness” when committing an unintentional social gaffe. If so, it was actually a charmingly self-deprecatory device.